by Victor Lee
He plays in the most highly scrutinized media market in the world, and he spent the 1998 baseball season in pursuit of a monumental record, but hardly anyone recognizes John Olerud in public. While Mark McGwire's name can be seen virtually anywhere, a lot of people can't even spell O-L-E-R-U-D.
"On the subway there were four or five times where somebody has recognized me and said something," John says. "New York's a big city and there are celebrities all over. As far as celebrities, I don't think that baseball players are really up there with the movie stars and TV stars."
Players who hit for average aren't up there with home run hitters, either. That much is obvious, or more people would realize that the New York Mets' left-handed first baseman fell just nine points short of becoming the first player in modern history to win a batting title in each league. The only person to do it was Ed Delahanty, who led the NL in 1899 and won the AL title in 1902. Olerud broke the Mets batting average record of .340, set by Cleon Jones in 1969.
Larry Walker's .363 average stood between Olerud and the NL batting crown. Walker may have benefitted from playing all his home games in spacious Coors Field. The extra few hits he may have got from hitting there would make the difference the batting title, but Olerud isn't complaining.
"There has been a lot of talk that it is easier to hit in Coors field," he says. "While there may be some truth to that, I don't think you can take anything away from what Larry Walker has done the last few years. I don't know if my average would be better or not, you still have to hit the ball well or you don't get as many hits."
Of possibly joining the short list with Delehanty, Olerud said, "It would be neat."Obviously, John Olerud doesn't get too high. He doesn't get too low, either. That's a key to his success. Hitting .353 is a matter of routine for John. Not that he does it routinely but it is his daily routine that leads to consistency. And consistency is the hallmark of any high-average hitter.
Winning a batting title - or hitting for a consistently high average - requires avoiding slumps.
"It's really tough, because a lot of it is mental," Olerud says. "Over the course of a year, bad habits can creep into your swing. You really need to know your swing, and you need a hitting instructor that knows your swing so that if he sees something that is out of character for you, he can get you back to where you were before.
"The key is knowing your approach, sticking to your strengths and working on your weaknesses."
Olerud finds it no accident that his on-field success parallels his spiritual victories. Listening to him talk about the maintenance and growth of his relationship with Jesus Christ — to whom John has committed his life — is sometimes like listening to him talk about hitting.
"Consistency is very important to being a Christian," John says. "My wife and I read a chapter of the Bible every night before we go to bed, and we pray together. That's the best thing for us it keeps us focused on Jesus. Other guys on the team are Christians, so we have Bible studies on the road where we can get together and go over a particular topic or verse of the Bible and see how it relates to our lives. And, I try to do a lot of reading of Christian books on my own."
In other words, John works daily at strengthening his relationship with Jesus Christ, just as he works daily at being a good baseball player. Baseball has taught John a lot about his faith. For instance, after John hit .363 to win the 1993 AL batting crown, he dropped to .297 and .291 the next two seasons, respectively. Those are very good batting averages, but so much more was expected by fans — and even by John — that it caused him to do so serious searching.
"I was still a pretty young Christian at the time," John says. "I had just gotten married, and I knew the Lord had blessed me with a great year (in 93). But I think I sort of looked at Him as a good luck charm. I would go to Baseball Chapel, and I would pray at night that He would bless me with a good performance on the field. But as I went through the struggles after the 93 season, I definitely was wondering why this was happening to me.
"There were times when I was hitting in the low .200s and didn't feel like things were ever going to change. I did a lot more reading and praying. I was saying to the Lord, I'm doing the best job I can, and I'm not going to be able to do it on my own. I want your help, and I want to do what you want me to do.' When you're doing everything you can and you can't turn things around, you look to Him.
"The thing that is reassuring to me, in hard times and good times, I know He's with me and has my best interests in mind. That knowledge frees me to do the best job I can. He is the one responsible for the results."
That realization has helped John remember to stay with the basics when in a slump. In 94 and 95 his struggles led to hitting adjustments that didn't work. They took him away from the routine and the characteristics that helped him win the batting title in 93.
"The Blue Jays felt that I should look to pull the ball early in the count, then if I got two strikes on me, try to hit to all fields," John explains. "But that got me to pulling the ball too much. I think that I learned through the periods of struggling at the plate that I have to do what got me to the big leagues hit to all fields. Just because you're a good hitter doesn't mean you can hit any way you want to. You want to work on your weakness, but you don't want to lose your strengths."
Olerud knows his strengths and stays within them. One of them is not hitting for power. McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Ken Griffey Jr. and the other sluggers will just have to get all of the attention John isn't going to try to adjust.
"That's just not the type of hitter I am," he says. "A great year for me would be 20 home runs (he hit ? in 98). I think the tough thing for me is being in a position (1B) where teams usually think they have to have a home run hitter. I can't think about that. I have to stick to my strengths. In 95 and 96 I got to looking for home runs and got myself in trouble. I didn't hit any more home runs than before, and I went down the tubes."
Far enough down that the Blue Jays must have thought he wouldn't come back; they traded him for a pitching prospect, Robert Person. The Mets were amazed Olerud was available. "We (hitting coach Tom Robson) knew John as one of the great hitters in the game," said Mets manager Bobby Valentine.